Arrival in France
Noel joined his unit in the field at Flesselles, just north of Amiens (map), on 16 February. Five days later he was in the front line near Rosieres. Heavy rain and thick mud hampered progress to the forward trenches. The regimental diary notes, “Many of the thigh gum boots were lost in the mud as were some rifles and other equipment. In the trenches the mud was 2 - 3 ft deep.” It delayed supplies getting forward so for the first evening Noel was on “iron rations”. In other respects it was typical of the many periods he was to spend in the line. There were gas attacks and artillery, machine-gun and rifle exchanges. Two men from Noel’s battalion were killed, five wounded and three gassed. There were also some cases of trench foot and everyone was exhausted by the time they were relieved. They were fortunate in that there had been no raids - the enemy mounted a raid the next day. It was unsafe to leave the trenches until nightfall and it was midnight by the time the men reached their billets at Vrely though they had the luxury of a hot meal at Meharicourt en route.
A period in the forward trenches was generally followed by a week or more in reserve, still in range of the enemy artillery, open to attack from the air and working incessantly but it was an opportunity to remove the mud from clothes and equipment. The men would work on communication trenches, repair roads and railways damaged by artillery fire and receive further instruction at frequent training sessions. They would sometimes be able to enjoy sports activities and self-produced “Na Poo” concerts at rest camp before setting off again for the line. On this occasion, in reserve, the men of the Battalion alternated between training and working on communication trenches at Vrély before moving on to Decauville Camp for almost a week of intensive training. It was very cold. The regimental diary notes, "Officers and men are rather war-weary but our request for shorter parade hours and some games was refused".
Then, less than a month after they had struggled through the mud to the forward trenches, they were on their way back there. The diary records, "We are constantly being drained but no reinforcements are coming up. This trip with a very poor strength, somewhere between 380 and 400 men to hold a frontage of 1600 yards …. Mud terrible and raining nearly all night." The guides were not good and the relief was not completed until 5.30 a.m. The trenches were in a very poor condition; "Very difficult to visit companies on the line, 300 yds of trench taking an hour to struggle through."